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England’s Great Transformation

Law, Labor, and the Industrial Revolution

With England’s Great Transformation, Marc W. Steinberg throws a wrench into our understanding of the English Industrial Revolution, largely revising the thesis at heart of Karl Polanyi’s landmark The Great Transformation. The conventional wisdom has been that in the nineteenth century, England quickly moved toward a modern labor market where workers were free to shift from employer to employer in response to market signals. Expanding on recent historical research, Steinberg finds to the contrary that labor contracts, centered on insidious master-servant laws, allowed employers and legal institutions to work in tandem to keep employees in line.

Building his argument on three case studies—the Hanley pottery industry, Hull fisheries, and Redditch needlemakers—Steinberg employs both local and national analyses to emphasize the ways in which these master-servant laws allowed employers to use the criminal prosecutions of workers to maintain control of their labor force. Steinberg provides a fresh perspective on the dynamics of labor control and class power, integrating the complex pathways of Marxism, historical institutionalism, and feminism, and giving readers a subtle yet revelatory new understanding of workplace control and power during England’s Industrial Revolution.

256 pages | 21 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Economics and Business: Business--Industry and Labor, Economics--History

History: British and Irish History

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work, Social History


“An exemplar of comparative/historical sociological work, both theoretically and methodologically, seamlessly blending micro- and macrolevels of analysis empirically and analytically. . .a powerful narrative that should have a big influence on sociological studies of labor and capitalism, both past and present.”

American Journal of Sociology

“[England's Great Transformation] is in many ways a model of theoretically informed historical analysis: it is intelligently conceived, clearly written, and deeply researched. In that sense, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of labor relations in nineteenth-century Britain.”

Victorian Studies

“A fascinating and thought-provoking work of historical sociology.”

Labour / Le Travail

“Steinberg’s meticulous study rethinks the relationship between the labor process and the state, between market and society, and between base and superstructure during Britain’s industrial revolution. The law was thoroughly embedded in relations of production, and in ways that varied with local configurations of technology, labor requirements, and political power. That finding leads Steinberg to uncover other surprises: ‘free labor’ came to England later than usually thought, and it came with the backing of organized labor seeking protection, not by, but from the state. The book is compelling reading for students of labor, political economy, and comparative-historical sociology.”

Jeffrey M. Haydu, University of California, San Diego

“This is a major and extremely valuable work of scholarship. Through rigorous analysis, Steinberg develops a new argument of central importance to sociologists and social scientists. Steinberg argues that a fully modern employment structure did not emerge in England until the beginning of the twentieth century—a finding that has important implications for understanding the formation of the English working class and how this differs from the European Continent.”

Fred Block, University of California, Davis

“Steinberg returns us to the question of labor control in nineteenth-century England, and in meticulous detail shows how the law becomes an instrument of capitalist exploitation. England’s Great Transformation’s focus on the legal basis of work organization is not only of historical significance—it is as pertinent to today’s on-demand economy as it is to Chinese state capitalism. A thrilling book that plunges into the important debates about the nature of workplace politics.”

Michael Burawoy, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents

Part I
1. Introduction
2. The Labor Process and Beyond
3. Law, Institutions, and Labor Control: Theory and History
Part II: Introduction to the Case Studies
4. Hanley and the Pottery Industry
5. Hull and the Fishing Trade
6. Redditch, Commercial Agriculture, Needle Manufacturing and Small-Town Justice
Part III
7. Retelling The Great Transformation
8. Conclusion


ASA Economic Sociology Section: Zelizer Best Book Award

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